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Organizing wins changes

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HealthWiki > Workers' Guide to Health and Safety > Chapter 1: Working for a living and living well > Organizing wins changes

Workers in almost every country have organized to build effective, representative unions, win better working conditions, and create long-lasting organizations to defend their victories. Over many years, unions have won higher wages, limits on working hours, safer workplaces, health care programs, and social insurance for disabled, ill, and retired workers. Sometimes unions have also helped to change governments in the interests of workers.

Chinese workers develop new ways to organize

Conditions in factories in China are often very bad: low wages, forced overtime, swing shifts, harassment and violence, and few guarantees of health and safety. Workers who have migrated to cities to work in export factories have no political rights and no access to services. Although a government-run union might exist, workers have little power to organize collectively to change working conditions. Strikes are illegal, and repression is constant. Workers in China are pushed to work as much as is physically possible, to never complain, to move to an equally bad factory when work in their current factory becomes unbearable, and to go back to their home villages when they physically or mentally break down.

But as a famous Chinese leader used to say, "Where there is oppression, there is resistance," and workers are finding ways to resist. Every year, workers carry out tens of thousands of actions, expressing their anger and demanding improvements. "Wildcat" strikes — strikes that happen suddenly, like a pot boiling over — have been a very useful tool for workers.

The disruptions caused by wildcat strikes have also helped workers see how their work is connected to work done in other factories. When a factory making batteries does not finish its order because workers are striking, then the factory waiting for those batteries cannot finish theirs. Workers in electronics assembly factories are beginning to use these "supply chain" connections to raise their demands more broadly and more effectively.

New forms of organizing among Chinese workers are beginning to rise. Since their official unions are an instrument of their oppression, they have formed worker centers. Since they cannot organize openly, they connect invisibly through social media or their phones. While wildcat strikes continue to happen, more strikes are well-strategized and well-organized. The workers’ demands are comprehensive and explicit. Workers are moving beyond reacting to bad conditions to becoming leaders of their own health and futures.